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Mack reacts to Mabel onscreen

Mabel's Dramatic Career

1913. Keystone Studios. Directed by Mack Sennett. With Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Alice Davenport

In Mabel's Dramatic Career, Mabel Normand plays a young woman who turns into Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett plays a man driven to violence by a Mack Sennett movie.

Here's the story: Mabel is a kitchen maid who's in love with the idiot son (Sennett) of the family she works for. When, at his mother's urging, Mack gets interested in a more suitable young woman, Mabel storms about and ends up fired. "Driven out into the world," she wanders into Keystone Studios. She sees a woman being strangled in her bed by a man in a top hat as a camera rolls, and she exclaims with glee "This is for me!" Asssembling cast and crew, Mabel emotes, dances, tells jokes, shows her legs, and takes an inadvertent pratfall. Mabel's Dramatic Career is launched.

Years later, Mack spots Mabel's picture outside of a nickelodeon. He goes inside, and sees his former sweetheart endure all sorts of indignities at the hands of a mustached villain. He can hardly keep his seat. This may not be the first movie Mack has seen, but he's confused about the reality level of what's happening on the screen. One dead giveaway that he's a naïve moviegoer: When the Keystone Kops show up to rescue Mabel, he takes this as a positive development. Ultimately he gets so upset with the villain's behavior that he pulls out a gun, fires at the screen, and stops the show.

Mabel's Dramatic Career is one of a series of Sennett/Normand collaborations made in the 1912-15 period (Mabel's Lovers, Mabel's Awful Mistakes, Mabel's Strange Predicament) where the Mabel character has adventures of one sort or another. The adventure of her becoming a film star, however, is qualitatively different from her becoming a typist or learning to drive a car. Here Mabel happens upon the film studio where the real Mabel Normand worked, encounters Mabel Normand's real-life colleagues, and performs in a real movie (At Twelve O'Clock—you can look it up) that starred the real Mabel Normand. She's like one of those trick-exposure doubles who eventually walks into the silhouette of the original and merges back up with her. This rubber-faced kitchen maid steps before our eyes into the role of her true self.

Adding to the star power of the enterprise, Fatty Arbuckle appears as the man sitting next to Mack at the movies. He is alternately amused and annoyed at his seatmate's antics (even those of us who don't read lips can recognize "Shut up!" and "Sit down!"). It's hard to know whether 1913 audiences were able to accept movie stars as proxies for the average people they were purporting to play, or whether there was already something double-edged about Mabel Normand stumbling into a film shoot or Fatty Arbuckle watching a picture show instead of performing in one (actually, watching a movie while performing in one). From today's vantage-point, Mabel's Dramatic Career is misshapen and primitive in many ways, but its sophistication about its own cast and their dual relationship with their onscreen selves is bracingly modern.


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein